As we approach the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s report into the tragic deaths of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, I want to finish the week by offering my thoughts on why all of us working with and for children should be excited about the opportunity this affords us. We must grasp this unique moment to create an ambitious, brave and visionary system, designed around the child, that delivers for and with them, so we can properly shift the dial on children’s experiences and outcomes.
This is a big moment too for the thousands of children in England who are in care, have spent time in care or are growing up in families receiving support from children’s services. I want to thank in particular those who have shared their experiences with the teams working on the reviews, and my team too, to help drive the change they desperately want to see.
Whilst the publication of papers and reviews are only ever the first stage in a process, and the ideas held in them only as good as their implementation, we must not underestimate the need to make sure we remember why reform is needed – too many children’s lives are at stake. And I know it can be done, I’ve seen it for myself, I’ve done it myself. As well as the difference it makes when children get amazing support. It is, very literally, life changing. We need everywhere to be as good as the best. We must have no tolerance for anything less than excellent. No patience for good enough.
I have already published my contribution to the Review, setting out my vision for what the system should and could provide for those who need it, and I look forward to doing whatever I can to make reform a reality. Here are the essential elements I’ll be looking out for to make sure we build a system around the child and that reflects what they have told me they need:
- A focus on stability – of home, relationships and education. That needs to be our ultimate aim. I want to see all children in loving, stable families, and where that can’t be their birth or adopted family, making sure there are viable alternatives to institutions wherever possible, and no more decisions about where a child will sleep that night on the basis of judicial decisions. I also want to make sure children have loving relationships with adults that last into their own adulthood. There are things we all want for our own children, as a minimum, so we must make sure every child across the country, has it too. For children in care, the focus has to be on creating loving, stable and permanent homes. Whether that be through adoption, foster care, kinship or, in some instances, children’s homes. The CMA’s market review into children’s social care found shortages in children’s homes placements and a fragmented system of commissioning. This means children are too often being placed out of area or in placements that don’t meet their needs. We need children to stay local, maintaining links with friends and family. These homes need to be linked in with continuity of education and mental health support. The Review needs to set out what it will take to achieve the expectations of the Children Act 1989 – where local councils are expected to provide sufficient homes for their children in care within their local areas. This is not being achieved at the moment, and we need concerted local and national action to address it;
- Capitalising on the opportunity presented by the timing of the Schools White Paper, the SEND Green Paper, and the ICS reforms coming at the same time as these reviews so that the systems are designed and delivered together, around the child, rather than in isolation, and making sure schools are equal fourth statutory partners on safeguarding partnerships;
- Making sure data and technology are used to improve their outcomes and experiences. I’d love to see us using this opportunity to implement a unique child identifier so that no child is lost in the system, and scale up models where that is already happening;
- A new model of family support where engagement with families is non-stigmatising and focused on practical support. Families should be able to access a continuum of support from community-based services right through to intensive support for families with the most acute issues. Crucially, this should continue even when children have been taken into care and must extend to wider family members who are providing help, such as kinship carers;
- A strong focus on mental health. This is the one issue that unites nearly all the cases that we come across through our helpline, Help at Hand, and all the children in care we speak to or survey. Mental health care is vital to stop children going into care and to help them build healthy, stable relationships in care. Yet this is not children’s experience, and the cases we intervene in typically involve a total disconnect between social care and health services. Seeing this as a joint mission between local authority and NHS is crucial. The Review needs to set out how we build on the 2017 Children and Social Work Act, in making this a reality. Within this, the mental health of parents, and not just of babies, is vital.
- Within this, the needs of children are diverse and complex but one group of children need particularly focus and that is children with disabilities, either with families and needing social care, or who are looked after. The same principles apply – and the above remain vital – but the practical issues these children and families face, and the way help needs to be organised and structured needs to be different. Too often, provision for disabled children isn’t given the particular focus it deserves, and this needs to be addressed.
The time to make this change is now – we as adults have the ultimate responsibility to all children and young people to make sure they have everything they need to grow up to be happy, healthy, successful adults. We can do this, and we must.